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Who will guard the grammarians?

Today is National Grammar Day. Watch your step.

You had better, because you have been given bad advice for years.

In “The Language Mavens,” a chapter in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker expresses frustration at the self-appointed guardians of English usage, the purveyors of rules that are not rules and idiosyncratic preferences masquerading as settled law. That would be, for example, John Simon, William Safire on his off days, many (if not most) copy editors, authors of blogs like this one. To be fair, his scorn for ill-informed prescriptivists is matched by his regret that academic linguists have been ineffective at informing the public.

There is a reason for the proliferation of bogus advice on language. Here’s where it all started:

In the 18th century, Britain became a world power, and the gradual fading of Latin as an international language made English more important as an expression of imperial power. At the same time, a steadily rising middle class required instruction in proper manners, dress, speech and conduct. There was therefore a market for manuals on correct English. (There is still a market for books advising the uncertain middle class how to dress, talk, write, etc. And diet. The middle class has always been an easy mark.)

The authors of these manuals operated on the principle that to elevate English to the level of prestige languages such as Latin and Greek, English must be made to resemble Latin and Greek. Therefore, for example, English sentences should not end with prepositions, since Latin sentences did not. Here also was the origin of the prohibition on splitting infinitives.

The whole question of what was “proper” English was unsettled. The French Academy had been struggling since the mid-17th century to regulate the French language, and English writers such as Jonathan Swift toyed with the idea on a comparable English Academy. (The “Immortals” of l’Academie francaise continue in their struggle, losing ground annually as the language develops in disregard of their precepts.)

Samuel Johnnson, embarking on the task of constructing the first comprehensive English dictionary, found “speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.”

Elsewhere in his great “Preface,” Johnson acknowledges the inevitable mutability of language: “Copiousness of speech will give opportunities to capricious choice, by which some words will be preferred, and others degraded; vicissitudes of fashion will enforce the use of new, or extend the signification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current sense: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will at one time or other, by publick infatuation, rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety. As politeness increases, some expressions will be considered as too gross and vulgar for the delicate, others as too formal and ceremonious for the gay and airy; new phrases are therefore adopted, which must, for the same reasons, be in time dismissed. Swift, in his petty treatise on the English language, allows that new words must sometimes be introduced, but proposes that none should be suffered to become obsolete. But what makes a word obsolete, more than general agreement to forbear it? and how shall it be continued, when it conveys an offensive idea, or recalled again into the mouths of mankind, when it has once by disuse become unfamiliar, and by unfamiliarity unpleasing.”

Even though he restricted his examples of usage in the Dictionary of 1755 to what he considered the best writers in English, he recognized that prescriptivism has its limits.

So, without an Academy to determine an authoritative English, and without the ability of dictionary makers to “fix” the language, the task of establishing principles of grammar and usage has fallen to a mixed group authorities of varying reliability.

There are the textbooks of English used in elementary schools. The easiest way to write a textbook is to imitate another textbook, and by that means the superstitions and shibboleths have persisted over the generations. Mr. Pinker points out that “once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier?”

For American newspapers, The Associated Press Stylebook, periodically revised, has been a guide to usage, though the writers of the Associated Press and the newspapers that use the stylebook regularly flout its dictates. (And its processes are irritatingly circular. AP bases the stylebook on the practices of its member newspapers, but its member newspapers look to it for guidance.) There are manuals of usage, some for college use such as the Harbrace College Handbook, and there are manuals for the general public, such as this battery of books that I regularly consult:

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Written by a specialist in law, a moderate and reasonable prescriptivist.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Detailed and also reasonable, though more heavily academic than Garner. (Merriam-Webster and Garner, along with Pinker, are the principal sources for the information above on the development of books of grammar and usage.)

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage by the late R.W. Burchfield, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein. A little dated (from 1979) but generally sound.

Words on Words by the late John B. Bremner, a delightfully cranky manual.

And I have at hand, largely for sentimental purposes, the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and my 1959 edition of The Elements of Style.

The problem for the writer and editor is that the authorities do not agree on every particular, and it becomes necessary to make judgments based on one’s own tastes and experience of the language. In effect, each of us must become his or her own usage authority, because there is no universally accepted central authority on English grammar and usage.

Arnold Zwicky enlarges on this point in a post at Language Log full of scorn for National Grammar Day: “Paul Kiparsky has noted on several occasions that while in some European countries the prescribing of language forms for certain public purposes is the job of official bodies, which normally include language scholars (as well as literary figures), this sort of regulation has been PRIVATIZED in English-speaking countries: it's managed by commercial publishers, newspaper and magazine editors, and a whole industry of free-lance advisers, only a few of whom know much about either the nature of language or the structure and history of English. Such an arrangement resonates with American free-enterprise ideals and also with the widespread American disdain for ‘experts’ and ‘intellectuals’.

“In any case, one result of this arrangement is that there's essentially no one to speak with any authority for rational reform, no one to accord some sort of official status to variants. Instead, all sorts of proscriptions live on in the marketplace of ideas -- proscriptions against stranded prepositions, split infinitives, sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions, ‘singular they’, and many more we've discussed here, endlessly — even when the ‘high-end’ advice literature generally admits them. What we get is people on the Microsoft Encarta website shrieking for the public shaming of linguistic miscreants, and a lot of peevish ranting all over the place.”

I hope that Mr. Zwicky doesn’t mean to imply that an English Academy of professional linguists is just the remedy, given that linguists appear to be as enthusiastically devoted to squabbling among themselves and inventing arcane terminology as any other group of academics.

We are almost certainly stuck with the language as it is, as it is spoken and written and commented on by its speakers and writers, messiness being an apparent corollary of liberty. It would be pleasant to establish some common understanding between the reasonable prescriptivists and the linguists, for the sake of increasing the store of sound advice for students and the puzzled writer. Perhaps, instead of talking among themselves on Language Log and other sites, linguists might be persuaded to give some practical help to those of us who, rather than indulging in peevish ranting, are trying to achieve clarity of prose and reasonable practices of grammar and usage in newspapers, magazines, books and electronic publications.

Until that glorious day, you, dear reader, are on your own. Find the people whose advice seems sensible to you, and follow it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (7)


Amen. As evidenced by the addition to the Oxford English Dictionary of words such as "bootylicious", the language changes all the time and to lay atop it a blanket of rules seems counterproductive.

There is reason to have a standard of rules that makes language consistent. But to adhere to rules that make the language stagnant isn't natural. The rules will remain, and the language will change around it.

"A Student's Introduction to English Grammar," written by 2 linguists, might be a good start. From page 5 of this book: "Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don't have that basis, they have no basis at all."

Nice column. However, dictionary is misspelled - Merriam-Webster’s Dicitonary(sic) of English Usage

At least spelling is easier to standardize on, silly as it may be.

Fixed. Thanks for pointing out the error.

"Triggering the Grand Irrationality?"

Cowering in an obscure corner of the food pyramid

somewhere between the tofu and the unflavored yogurt

contemplating the juxtaposition of intangibles for all you are worth.....

Bingo. Instead of all the peevish complaining about the supposed correctness of some infinitesimal slice of the language, isn't it nice to contemplate what a great, useful, flexible, expressive, and entertaining language English is? :-)

I've been searching for a trustworthy language and grammar voice for about two years now. Thanks for being a shoe-in.

I've been speaking and writing in English for over 30 years, but I have only recently become fascinated with the history and mechanics.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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